Sirloin steak was served. The host had it done medium rare, his wife medium, and Tesla well. Tesla glanced at the hostess’s luminous hair, with curls like copper coils.
When Tesla lifted his steak knife, it glistened like a mirror, elongating his face. Nevertheless, he rubbed the blade in several napkins, while the hostess, Miriam, laughed at him. “What’s the matter, Nikola? You think we are filthy rich.”
“No, Ma’am, you are as clean as they come, but we live in a filthy world. I have used only sixteen napkins here, while at Waldorf-Astoria I use seventeen. That shows you how much I trust you.”
“You are insufferable! I don’t know why we put up with you,” she said.
“Oh, we know why we do,” said the host, Sebastian, straightening his pointed silvery mustache.
Tesla scrutinized the wine in his glass for a few seconds, brought the glass to his thin lips, and sipped, and kept tossing the wine back and forth from one cheek to the other, enjoying the tart tightening of his gums.
He sliced his steak into little cubes. He calculated the volume of each one before putting it into his mouth. He didn’t need a measure to figure out the lengths; his sense of proportion, he was sure, would precisely give him the lengths. The first cubic morsel was probably .8888~ cubic centimeters, loosely speaking. As long as it was smaller than one, he was pleased with the quantity. He was impressed that the numeral eight emerged, and he decided he would enjoy the dinner as a thematic variation on the number eight; he squared it into sixty-four, and chewed patiently, counting till sixty-four.
Miriam observed his serrated jaw muscles working like an accordion. “My God, you are a patient eater.”
What is there to be impatient about?” he responded. “It will take my stomach at least twenty-four hours to digest the beef; why should it take my mouth less than sixty-four seconds to chew it?”
He looked into the hostess’s eyes, and in the dim light, her pupils occupied more area than her blue irises—8 millimeters in diameter, which is to say, 4 in radius. 4 squared times half of Pi. Of course, with each shift in the quantity of light, the diameter would change, and so would the area.
He carved an octagonal shape out of his steak. That’s partly why he liked his steak well done, and why he liked the knives to be extremely sharp—so he could cut out regular shapes.
“Why, Nikola, you are a sculptor with your steak,” Miriam said and glanced toward her husband, who was chewing obliviously, with his eyes half-closed to better concentrate on the joys of rare flesh. “It gives me pleasure to observe how precisely you cut it. Do you do everything so precisely?”
“No, ma’am. Many things can’t be done precisely.”
“Are you so precise in love as well?”
“Depends on what you mean by love. If you mean a wireless transfer of electricity, then, yes, of course—I will be very soon. First I need to raise the means for doing so.”
“Oh, I don’t mean that! That doesn’t sound like love but physics.” Miriam finished her second glass of Bordeaux.
Nikola Tesla had a sensation that she was gently rubbing the calf of his leg with her foot. He blushed, and wasn’t sure to what extent the flush in his cheeks was a result of the embarrassingly intimate bodily contact and how much of the dry wine, and at the moment, he had no idea how to establish a formula for solving that problem.
When Miriam stood up to visit the toilet, he still had the feeling of her foot rubbing the calf of his leg. An electrifying sensation crawled up his skin and into his scalp, similar to what he felt during the public demonstrations while he conducted two million volts of electricity over the surface of his body. After the experiments, he would glow in the dark for a few seconds, all his hairs standing, magnetized, and his mind nearly swooning in electrical ecstasy. The hairs that protruded outside his cuffed and sharply starched white shirt, on the back of his palm, stood up. This reminded him of his old tomcat from his childhood. Having seen sparks of static before petting the cat in the dark, Nikola had asked his mother whether the world was one huge tomcat, with lightning all over it. Now he lifted the edge of the embroidered tablecloth to peer down and noticed that the outer calf of his leg was leaning against the wooden leg of the table.
He thought that his sensual reaction to the imaginary carnal contact with the hostess was treacherous of him, considering that his host, Sebastian Chesterfield, kindly invited him several times a month for dinner, and even more kindly, had bought some shares of the Nikola Tesla Company.
And at the moment, Sebastian was speaking at the end of the table. “We live in most peculiarly volatile times; it seems we could become the perfect society, but it’s more likely that we will all end up in flames. These are sad days indeed.”
“I think there has never been so much humor in the air,” Nikola responded.
“How do you define humor?” Sebastian asked. “In the Greek way?”
“No, as joking. For example, Why does a policeman move to a corner whenever it gets cold in his room? —Because he’s heard that the corner’s 90 degrees.”
“For my part, I like the police,” Sebastian commented.
Tesla gulped a couple of swallows from his glass of water, despite seeing tiny particles hovering in it—bacteria or dust? He was afraid only of living organisms. His office was full of lead, asbestos, and all sorts of heavy metals and their dusts, and none of them did any harm to him. He washed the gulp of water with a gulp of wine and continued. “One afternoon, a Dalmatian man woke up with a shriek of horror.
—What’s the matter? his brother asked.
—I had a dream that I was working.”
“Sad, sad. It reminds me of how we indeed live in a world full of indolence,” Mr. Chesterfield said.
“And how about this one? Two Montenegrins stand on a dock and enjoy the sunset colors. One says to the other, Look, there’s a man drowning!
—Oh, I see.
—And we are just standing.
—You are right. Let’s sit down.”
“You come up with so many patents,” Miriam said, “it must be easy for you to come up with jokes.”
“I dine with Mr. Clemens as often as I can in order to enjoy his witty conversation, but I can’t come up with a joke. I’m pretty gloomy when left to my own devices, and I don’t think humorously.”
“Well, how about marriage?” asked Sebastian.
“You mean, if I really want to be gloomy?”
“He is an eligible bachelor now, isn’t he?” Sebastian addressed Miriam.
“Oh yes, so tall and dashing with all these pending and pendulous patents.” She swallowed a big gulp of wine, and the red lingered beyond the edge of her upper lip, on the superfine fuzz. “You need a business-savvy woman who will make sure you don’t get cheated out of your proper royalties. Ann Morgan adores you. With her father’s money, you’d never have to worry about financing your experiments.”
“But she wears earrings,” Tesla protested.
“She could take them off, if you told her to,” Miriam said.
“But she would be offended.”
“What’s wrong with earrings?” she asked.
“The coiled metal so close to your brain interferes with your brain waves. You are not in full possession of your senses. It’s quite possible that an advanced civilization from outer space could control you through high-frequency ether waves. I think it’s enough to take a look at our fellow citizens to realize that many of them aren’t real human beings but robots, controlled through their love of jewelry.”
Sebastian suggested, “Maybe you could control Ann’s brain using your electromagnetic toys. She could be your robot.”
“You have a point. I better start working to figure out a mechanism to harness an heiress’s brain. I might change my attitude toward coiled bodily metals yet. But for now, I don’t want to deal with Ann’s jewelry.”
“The rumor has it,” said Sebastian, “that you could have become the richest man on earth if you hadn’t torn up a contract for AC generators with Westinghouse.”
“True. Westinghouse faced the pressure from his investors to reduce the amount and rewrite the contract—I thought he was my friend, so I tore up the contract. All he aimed for, most likely, was for me to reduce the amount in half. Even at fifty cents a kilowatt hour, I’d be the first billionaire on the continent.”
“But then you wouldn’t dine with us, would you?” said Miriam. “So there’s a happy upshot to the story.”
“I would dine with you, but we’d be doing it in my palace, illuminated by electricity directly from the far reaches of the universe.”
“What a bastard, that Westinghouse,” said Sebastian. “He could have protected you from your impulses.”
“Well, he did give me a couple hundred thousand dollars, but I already spent all of that on my equipment and experiments.”
“Amazing,” Sebastian said. “How could you spend that much money in ten years?”
“My lab went up in flames a couple of times. Anyhow, I would have spent a hundredfold if I’d had it, but by now, we would live in a different world, without wires and rails. We would travel through air on electromagnetic waves, we’d talk to our European cousins on wireless telephones, we’d bomb our enemies with powerfully focused cosmic rays, with no need for guns and cannons.”
A courier came running in. “A message from Wall Street. The markets are collapsing!”
Mr. Chesterfield stood up from the table. “Again? I’ll be back in an hour.”
“Do you need me to go with you?” asked his wife.
“I have to attend to this myself. You two just stay here, and I’ll be back momentarily, when I see what shakes out. It’s probably another false alarm.”
The host swallowed the last bite of his bloody beef, which made his Adam’s apple leap up and down like a valve, and he strode out of the room, his hard-leather shoes drumming on the cherry-wood floors. Tesla felt the vibrations through the floor, and he had an impression that his shins were resonating with the floor-thudding.
Miriam leaned back in her chair, gathered her glowing hair behind her ears to reveal a strong jaw-line, and laughed merrily, with her chest rising.
“What’s funny?” asked Tesla.
“I’m happy even if you haven’t invented a space vehicle yet.”
The maitre d’ came over, and said, “How can I help you?”
“You can’t. Go to your quarters and relax, that’s how,” she said.
The tall stooping man walked out gingerly, without making a sound.
“Here, your husband may be losing his fortune this very minute because the markets are collapsing, and you are happy.”
“What do you care about the markets? They go up and down. And last time they went down, my husband bought up all sorts of stocks and tripled his wealth within a month when the markets rebounded.”
“I could rejoice in the collapse of the financial world if it didn’t mean my budget would be the first to go. Even my stock might be sinking.”
“Oh, don’t talk about stocks and become a bore like the rest of them. Let me show you a painting. It’s in the library.”
He followed her to the darkened brown room, where everything seemed to be hushed and subdued in tone, except for a pale-skinned beauty by Ingres.
“Lovely forms, what clarity of skin,” Tesla said. “But, the visual arts are of not interest to me since I recall everything in full detail. I nearly flunked out of elementary school because I refused to draw. I didn’t see why I should draw anything when I could totally recall it.”
“How about your engine designs?”
“I don’t need to draw them, except to explain to engineers what I mean. This is marvelous. Is that you? She looks just like you.”
“How would you know what I look like? You can’t see through my clothes, now, can you?”
“You could have posed for one of your famous artist friends, for this Ingres, for example.”
There was a radiance and shine on her, but that may have simply been the result of a streak of light falling through an opening between the crimson velvet curtains and hitting her coiled hair. He wondered whether red hair contained more iron than hair of other colors. There was a powerful magnetic field around her, no doubt about that.
“Kiss me!” Miriam said. Her mouth was half open, her moist lips glistening.
Tesla was tempted to lean over and kiss her, but he thought of just how many different kinds of bacteria and how many millions of them would be exchanged in a single kiss, and he shivered from fear. Each cubic milliliter exchanged could mean some incurable and as-yet-undiagnosed disease. Tesla had grown up surrounded by TB, malaria, pneumonia, and he did not want to sink into disease again. Sure, the disease could remind him of his native region, his village in Gorski Kotar. Getting a swallow of bacteria-rich saliva would be like manna from the homeland, something to cure him of nostalgia. Tesla was over six feet tall, and so, to avoid the kiss, he simply straightened up.
“I wish I was a painter and you posed for me.”
“So you’d stand away; you wouldn’t have to touch me, is that it? All right, as you wish.”
She took a few steps back and threw her clothes off, her dress, her bodice, revealing a sensationally curvaceous body, with a tilted hip. Tesla stretched out his arm and his fingertips reached toward her. He let his fingers come to within eight millimeters of her skin. She lay down on an ornate divan. He sensed her electromagnetic field exerting a pulling force to the iron in his blood, like a magnet, and the iron in his blood, once stirred, created magnetic waves which clashed with hers and stroked hers. He traced her body shape over her skin without touching her. If he clashed with the lines of her magnetic field in a regular and harmonic manner, he could create electricity in her; and as she shifted she became the rotor of a human alternating-current generator. Her hairs stood up and she moaned. Sparks flew between his fingers and her skin, crackling and flashing. In the blue light of static, her skin appeared ephemeral and translucent.
After a certain amount of such remote stroking, he excused himself and went to the bathroom. He nearly swooned from the discharge he felt while leaning against the cold red marble tiles. He washed his hands with a new soap for several minutes, until he saw that his skin was creasing up.
He walked back, and Miriam, who was flushed and breathless, was already dressed. Her hair was disheveled, and it occupied twice the volume it used to.
Tesla straightened his stiff collar. On his way out, on the white marble staircase, he ran into Mr. Chesterfield, who said, “False alarm. The market dipped but didn’t collapse. Stay! Let’s celebrate with the finest Italian wines.”
“I can’t celebrate now. Too much work to do.”
“What are you working on?”
“The end of the world.”
The following Tuesday he didn’t go to see the Chesterfields. It would be awkward to look Sebastian in the eye. Not that he would need to look him in the eye, or that he ever did, really, but just knowing that he would have to avoid his eyes, that would be awkward. On the other hand, what did he do wrong? Did he make love with his wife? Perhaps he did, but he did not have sex with her, not in the graphic way, anyhow. Or, he had metaphysical sex; well, perhaps physical, but not chemical. If there was a biochemical side effect, it was totally separate from hers; they didn’t mingle their bodily contents. Still, he was distracted. As soon as he closed his eyes, even fleetingly, the image of red coppery coils glowed, filling his head with light. He wished he’d never looked into the curls, for they befuddled his mind. He would fight this, however, through the new project.
In his lab atop 64 East Houston Street, he worked on perfecting an oscillator which, when connected to a solid iron surface, could create waves of ever-increasing intensity. If he could add to a wave of disturbance of the matter synchronously, the wave would keep growing and growing, until it became a tremendous power that could destroy buildings. With a fist-sized oscillator, it would take him less than an hour to drop the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River.
Tesla worked for twenty hours each day, and slept only for four, before dawn. The next Wednesday morning, while Tesla sipped rose-hip tea, the mailman brought him a bundle of letters; one was from Miriam. “You didn’t make it to our dinner party yet again. Just when I thought that we had attained a new level of friendship, you have begun to avoid us. Are you all right? How is your health? You have been looking very thin lately, so maybe it’s not us, not me, that you are avoiding. Do please let me know lest I should have to check on you in person.”
Tesla finished the tea. While he tried to imagine energy waves, he visualized them alternately as the line from her pelvis ascending over the hip and waist and then as elliptical circling around her breasts, a numeral 8 laid down, a blue wave traveling atop one breast, then below another and back. In size, he wondered what the proportion of the breast wave was to the hip wave, whether there was a simple ratio, such as 1/8, but he stopped himself from attempting to calculate the relative sizes from his visual recollection, although he believed he could, and that the ratio, in keeping with the theme of that distracting feminine obsession of his, might turn out to be one to eight. But no, thinking of feminine forms and shapes would not produce any innovative thoughts but would trap his mind in the most ancient mind-simplifying and numbing loop of desire. He should be above that, and beyond that.
Just then the bell rang. He went to the door, and there stood Miriam in a crimson dress and a white collar. Her lips looked fuller than before.
“I was so worried about you that . . . . ”
“I know your thoughts, I can read them,” Tesla interrupted her.
“I am not surprised. I believe you can read my thoughts and see right through me.”
“It’s much simpler than that; you have just written to me.”
“You know, what happened between us was so wonderful and subtle and amazingly powerful I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Can you kiss me? Just once? Long?”
“It would be dangerous. I might succumb to some disease which can’t harm you, like an Indian exposed to European diseases.”
“We could practice self-restraint. It wouldn’t be that dangerous. Just one more time, can we? The excitement of your strange touch . . .”
“I didn’t touch you.”
“That’s what I mean. You didn’t but you did.”
She sat on his sofa and pulled her skirt up a little so she could sit comfortably. The motion revealed the curve of the muscle behind her shin, the soleus muscle, and that too was a wave.
The sofa was very close to the iron post that went into the foundation of the building. Suddenly Tesla had a thought that the physical waves from the oscillator, when increased in intensity, could excite her.
“Undress!” he said. He stood up and spread his arms, and with his pointed aquiline nose, he resembled a condor landing on a rock.
“What? I thought you didn’t want to . . . and you can see through my clothes, I’m always naked to you.”
“Maybe I can, but this is for you, so you can feel the cool air blowing away your heat aura. Undress, and you’ll experience some fascinating rhythmic sensations.”
“Is that a euphemism?”
“I don’t do euphemisms.”
She began to undress. It was an elaborate feminine undertaking. He remembered the saying, It doesn’t cost as much to undress a woman as it does to dress her. The layers of velvet and silk went, and there she lay, naked, her shiny and ethereal white skin reflecting light, ghostlike, darkening the room, and Tesla stood, dizzy with admiration.
Tesla attached his electric oscillator which tapped the iron post gently. The iron rang with high-frequency after-sounds like a tuning fork.
“See what happens now. These simple mechanical waves, when added precisely, build up. Pretty soon, the building will shudder, and you will have a fine sensory experience.”
The iron emitted deeper clanking noises as it received more and more taps. Gradually, metal objects around the loft began to resonate, and the table began to slide, in jerks, and as the floor was slightly tilted, it traveled toward the street window.
Miriam lay in the shaking sofa, and lifted one of her knees above the other, and Tesla admired the angle of her thighs, estimating that if he averaged the lines, it would be thirty-two degrees, a very fine number indeed.
“What is going to happen next?” she asked.
“These resonating vibrations could grow to such an extent that in half an hour the buildings across the street would crack and tilt. If I kept it up for three hours, I could shatter all the buildings in New York.”
“I don’t believe you,” Miriam said, her eyes twice their normal size.
“Yes, you believe me,” he said, gazing into her eyes from beneath his drooping eyelids, calmly, as though refusing to mesmerize her. If he opened his eyes, he could send beams of electricity into her, but he didn’t want that at the moment. On the other hand, if he let his eyelids droop too much, he saw her light, from his memory of her at the dinner table.
The floor shook and Tesla perceived slight vibrations through the rubber soles of his shoes. He preferred to wear expensive handcrafted shoes to fit his long and narrow feet, but whenever he did experiments, even if they didn’t directly involve electricity, he didn’t want to be “grounded”—and rubber let him float in space, as it were, electrically speaking. The shaking went into his bones and induced a prompt erection. He was surprised because he didn’t think he was excited. He buttoned up his frock coat, certain that she hadn’t noticed the evidence of his lust. Was it lust for her or for the harmonic waves of the earth? he wondered, and decided it was Miriam more than the waves of the earth, although the two did act in synergy at the moment, as did his oscillator waves.
It was cool in the apartment, and Tesla noticed goose bumps on her forearms, and her buttocks.
“I love it, how you terrify me.”
“I know that I could, if you gave me a few months, cause such violent vibrations in the crust of the earth that continents would split farther apart, new mountain ranges, higher than the Himalayas, would appear in Nebraska, and the Missouri would flow into the Hudson Bay . . .”
“You are insane. Ah . . . Keep on talking.”
The floor shuddered, and two chairs hopped and squealed and circled around each other as though two drunken, invisible musicians couldn’t contain their melodies to their instruments but let them take over their bodies and their chairs.
The sofa shook and slid rhythmically, a few inches with each impulse. On the bookshelf, a bottle of golden-hued slivovitz danced, tilting minutely and progressing toward the edge.
A hue of red, of the blood in rhythmic motion, surfaced down her neck and breasts. Her breasts rippled in circular waves, which spread form the nipples outward; the breasts resembled two puddles after swallowing thrown pebbles. Tesla gazed, adoring the responsiveness of her flesh.
“I can make an earthquake, just for you, my dear.”
“It’s the first time ever you’ve called me ‘dear’.”
“And as a matter of fact, I believe we already have an earthquake, and since we are in the epicenter of it, we are quaking the least.” Tesla walked to the window. Several houses up the street, windows were bursting, people ran, old roof-tiles slid and crashed on the pavement. Hum, maybe that’s getting a little too far? Tesla thought, but he wanted to finish his point.
“If you gave me a year or so, provided that I found out the exact harmonic formula for the earth, I could split the earth in half. It would split like a ripe watermelon when you stick a knife into it just an inch.”
“Ah, ah!” Miriam turned pale. “Touch me, please!”
“We don’t need to go that far, now, do we?” Tesla asked. “Of course, I would have the technical problem of keeping the oscillator so solidly fixed somewhere that all the shaking around it wouldn’t dislodge it and bury it. You know, at a certain point, the oscillator would commit suicide before the mission was accomplished. Anyhow, if I found an iron vein, both firm and elastic enough, running down into the earth . . .”
“Suicide? Oh, would you like to die with me? I love the idea! We could attain ecstasy while simultaneously dying together.”
At that moment the sofa slid half way across the loft.
Windows across the street fell out all at once with a shattering burst.
“Ah, ah, don’t stop!” Miriam gasped and grew as red as the velvet of her discarded dress.
“This is working even faster than I thought,” said Tesla. He grabbed a sledgehammer and smashed his oscillator. The shaft of iron resounded so loudly that Tesla thought his eardrums must have burst.
Miriam leaped out of the sofa which had crashed against the wall. She gathered her robes and she slid on her silk stockings and other undergarments and held her dress, figuring which way would be the best to enter it, when the police barged in.
“Sir, the neighborhood is falling apart. Is that you and your mad experiments?”
“No, gentlemen. I’m engaged in other gentlemanly activities, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, I see,” said one policeman. “Sorry to bother you.”
“Not at all. I am glad you are around. I was becoming worried myself.”
Miriam was trembling as she put the dress on.
“Come back next week, and we’ll see whether my low-frequency radio waves combined with microwaves could excite you.”
She smiled at him, her lips curving and intensifying in light.
“We can do better, next time. I can make fantastic micro-waves, which a German now calls Roentgen rays, although I discovered them a while back. I forgot to file the patent for that one. Do come back, and I’ll send beams through you, and you might like it. I could show the exact layout of your bones. Do you know the angle of your pelvis?”
She walked out, and he accompanied her. The building still seemed to shake with aftershock waves, which resonated in Tesla’s bones, even in his pelvis. There was a debris of shattered glass, bricks, tiles, along the walls.
As he walked in the streets, he didn’t listen and he didn’t talk. He was melancholy since he spent too much time thinking about raising money for his experiments, and now he wondered whether he would be able to shake off the thoughts of Miriam’s curves and coils. He used to be able to come up with a patent every ten minutes in his walks, but at this rate, maybe it would be one a day. His priestly father did warn him against money and women. Nikola should be able to forget her curves or humanity would languish in darkness for a millennium to come.
When he said goodbye to Miriam absent-mindedly, looking at shattered windows above her head rather than at her, she stood on tiptoe. Her lips embraced his lower lip. In surprise, he didn’t withdraw right away, and her lips squeezed his softly and irresistibly, like some kind of submarine creature its meal. And as though an electrical eel had gripped his lip, a scorching sensation shot deep through him, and a freezing one enveloped his skin. For several immeasurable seconds, the fire and the ice clashed through the layers of his flesh steamily, until he recoiled.
He stepped back, and the glass shards on the cobbles screeched and cracked beneath his feet. Her frizzy hair apparently pulsed blue light blindingly. He ran. Even when he reached his doorstep, he felt the hot lips printing their vertical lines on his lip, and he shivered, thinking of the millions of invisible creatures crawling inside his lip onto his gums, tongue, throat, and lungs. He leapt up the dusty and dank stairs to burn his mouth with slivovitz. As he slammed the door behind him, the bottle tipped over the edge of the shelf, and crashed on the floor, and the salvific spirits sank into the thirsty wood of the floor.